DARPA wants sea life to start monitoring for underwater threats

File this one under ‘you couldn’t make it up’: DARPA, the US’ research agency, wants to start using sea life to monitor seas and oceans for threats.

Under the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) programme, DARPA plans to test whether natural or modified organisms could be used to detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles.

“The US Navy’s current approach to detecting and monitoring underwater vehicles is hardware-centric and resource intensive. As a result, the capability is mostly used at the tactical level to protect high-value assets like aircraft carriers, and less so at the broader strategic level,” said PALS programme manager, Lori Adornato.

“If we can tap into the innate sensing capabilities of living organisms that are ubiquitous in the oceans, we can extend our ability to track adversary activity and do so discreetly, on a persistent basis, and with enough precision to characterise the size and type of adversary vehicles.”

DARPA claims that sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over the current hardware used for monitoring.

Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, and it self-replicates and self-sustains.

DARPA also notes that evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains – tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical, and optical. Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark.

“Our ideal scenario for PALS is to leverage a wide range of native marine organisms, with no need to train, house, or modify them in any way, which would open up this type of sensing to many locations,” Adornato said.

PALS researchers and teams working with the programme will now begin to develop hardware, software, and algorithms to translate marine life behaviour into actionable information and then communicate it to end users.

In other words, DARPA wants its researchers to build the tech that would turn marine life into the sea version of Lassie.

Any tech proposed by PALS will ideally be capable of sending data to devices as far as 500 meters away, and the complete sensing systems must also discriminate between target vehicles and other sources of stimuli, such as debris and other marine organisms, to limit the number of false positives.

DARPA anticipates that PALS will be a four-year, fundamental research programme requiring contributions in the areas of biology, chemistry, physics, machine learning, analytics, oceanography, mechanical and electrical engineering, and weak signals detection.

Change is Coming: Six Predictions for Technology in 2018

Rising support for geoengineering

We’re predicting President Trump will continue to make foolish statements on climate change. No shit, I hear you say, but while Trump drags his feet on the subject, the planet is getting warmer and extreme weather events are becoming more and more common. Perhaps, then, 2018 will be the year we see increased support for more controversial methods of reversing climate change, such as geoengineering.

Geoengineering refers to different techniques that could be used to artificially engineer the climate’s temperature. The concept isn’t a new one – the ideas were first kicked around in the 1960s – but given the current political climate and the pessimism over whether we can meet the targets set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, it’s certainly a term we’ll be hearing a lot more in 2018.

CRISPR-driven medical breakthroughs

Gene editing technology CRISPR has already had a dramatic impact on the bioscience community, and has shown promising medical results in Chinese trials, but 2018 will be the year it truly comes to humans, with the first in-human trials in Europe and the US set to start this year.

With the ability to make precise adjustments to genes in living humans, the technology will likely initially be used to transform the treatment of rare but lifelong conditions, paving the way for large-scale treatment of more common ailments several years down the line. However, the technology will also present deep moral questions, and will no doubt see some form of backlash as its possibilities become more widely discussed.

Image courtesy of Impossible Foods

Meat that isn’t meat goes mainstream

The efforts to minimise our environmental impact will continue in 2018, with an ever-greater focus on what we eat. One area that is set to see increasing discussion is meat consumption, with increased efforts to get us to ditch beef and other meats in favour of more sustainable protein sources. Which is why 2018 will be the year that foods that look, cook, taste and bleed like real meat but are really made from plants are going to enter the mainstream consciousness and food supply.

Leading the way will be Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger, which saw a limited launch last year and is likely to be available in many more places over the next 12 months, but other food manufacturers are no doubt working to develop their own rival products.

On the way towards artificial general intelligence

Artificial intelligence had a good 2017, putting the game Go in the same category as chess and Jeopardy, as games AIs are now better than humans at. Unfortunately, while we now have AI that can excel at a specific task, they’re not so good at multitasking, and to paraphrase Matthew Mcconaughey in the coming-of-age movie Dazed and Confused, ‘it’d be a lot cooler if they did’.

Sorry to burst your bubble, especially in a list of 2018 predictions, but this won’t happen in 2018. The days when AI can call itself an expert in Go, Russian theatre and why Marvel can make films but not TV shows is decades away, but we’ll see momentum shift towards making this a reality in 2018, so expect AI to appear a little smarter by the end of the year.

Image courtesy of Waymo

Driverless cars get real

2017 was a fantastic year for driverless cars, with Waymo announcing the start of tests without a driver behind the wheel on public roads and companies such as Audi announcing the inclusion of partial AI on current models. 2018, however, will see the driverless car race go into overdrive, with many counties beginning to seriously tackle the legal side of the technology in readiness for a full rollout in the early 2020s.

However, more of a legal focus will bring more public discussion, and a fair amount of it won’t be positive. Automotive companies will need to step up their efforts to ensure a positive image for driverless cars in 2018.

Image courtesy of Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson’s New Year planning for space travel

Hopefully you’ve all made your New Year’s resolutions that you fully intend to stick to. What are they? Go to the gym more? Make more of effort with your friends? Do some centrifuge g-force training so you can be as acclimatised as possible for the journey to space?

That last one probably only applies to Richard Branson, who wants to get as fit as possible before his private space program Virgin Galactic goes into space. Last October, Branson said he was about six months away from going to space, which would take him up to around March, so hopefully he has a few more resolutions to tide him over until 1st January 2019.

Additional reporting by Daniel Davies